White Americans need to study Black history to better understand their own stories

My journey began when I got a summer job selling Ebony Pictorial History of Black America door-to-door in Black neighborhoods, author Jonathan Odell writes. I had never been in a Black person’s home before, and I was sure they didn’t want me in theirs. I was surprised to find that I was welcomed.

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Hundreds participate in the National Action Network demonstration in response to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rejection of a high school African American history course, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla. (Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat via AP, File) ORG XMIT: FLTAL161

Hundreds participate in the National Action Network demonstration in response to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rejection of a high school African American history course, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla. The College Board, in late April, announced changes will be made to the new AP African American course framework amid criticism earlier in the year that the agency bowed to political pressure and removed several topics from the framework, including Black Lives Matter, slavery reparations and queer life.

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As an author who has written three novels and countless essays exploring race in Mississippi, I am deeply troubled by the GOP’s full court press to ban Black history from the classroom. They seem to agree with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis when he called it a Trojan horse for left-wing ideology.

The truth is, I agree with their characterizations of Black history as a gateway drug to a more liberal perspective. It happened to me.

Growing up white in the 1960s and 1970s in Mississippi, I was raised in a racist culture with deeply ingrained white supremacist beliefs. However, it was through the study of Black history that I could transform into someone whom DeSantis would likely consider a left-wing ideologue committed to rewriting American history.

My journey began when I was 19 and got a summer job selling the first edition of Ebony Pictorial History of Black America door-to-door in Black neighborhoods to pay for my education. I had never been in a Black person’s home before, and I was sure they didn’t want me in theirs, but I needed the money. I was surprised to find that I was welcomed. This was an era when no one had ever seen a book on Black history designed for the Black mass market. And they certainly didn’t teach it in schools. The desire to see their own story, written down, was palpable.

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Over that summer, I visited countless Black homes, telling stories and showing pictures of African American heroes who were not just sports stars and singing acts, but also entrepreneurs, Supreme Court justices, Air Force generals, inventors, intellectuals, orators, militants, revolutionaries, kings and queens. I remember the solemn weight of that unknown history as it settled upon them, with children’s eyes opening wide, parents pulling their kids closer, and a sense of reverence in the air.

‘Their history, not mine’

However, I did not feel that Black history had anything to do with me. It was their history, not mine. That all changed one day when I was showing my books to an elderly Black man who was considering the set for his grandchildren. He proudly mentioned that he had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and I asked him what that had meant to him, hoping to firm up the sale.

He said before that day, he was seen as a “boy,” but after, he saw himself as a man. Nothing had been the same since.

When I remarked condescendingly that most Black people saw Dr. King as a savior, the man interrupted me and said something that would change my life. “Not just Black folks, son,” he said firmly. “He’ll save you too if you let him.”

That moment revealed a truth that threatened my identity as a privileged white man. We were in this together, and we all needed saving. It wasn’t just Black history I had been selling. This was my history as well. You can’t understand Black history without reflecting on white history. Blacks and whites, we created this history together. It is the void between us that has been artificially constructed.

I could never truly understand my story, my true identity, until I understood the entire story — a story constructed of countless connections and transactions obscured by blind prejudice and white supremacy. It was then I became a student of Black history, but not for the sake of Blacks. I studied to save myself.

With each novel, I attempt to put all the shattered pieces of our mutual histories back together on the same page. In the end, what DeSantis and others like him fear about the study of Black history is precisely what makes it so powerful. It can reveal the missing pieces of each other’s stories and change us profoundly. Because of this “indoctrination,” I became committed to rewriting American history, one novel at a time.

Jonathan Odell is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, speaker and memoirist.

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